Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

3 ways online learning can narrow the higher education and workforce gender gap

Online learning : woman's hands on a laptop

Online learning could help address the global gender gap. Image: Unsplash/Christina @ wocintechchat.com

Betty Vandenbosch
Chief Content Officer, Coursera
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Education, Gender and Work

  • The World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2022 estimates it will take women 132 years to reach full parity with men in the workforce.
  • Empowering women with education and skills to re-enter the labour market will be key to accelerating an equitable post-pandemic recovery.
  • Online learning provides an invaluable opportunity to level the playing field for women by connecting them to better opportunities and prospects.

Women were among the hardest hit during the pandemic. Many were forced out of the workforce and overall they lost more jobs than men did.

Two years on, they remain just as vulnerable, left behind in a ‘gender-unequal’ employment recovery, according to the International Labour Organization.

Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2022 indicated it will now take 132 years to reach full parity compared to pre-pandemic estimates of only 100 years, assuming the current trajectory remains constant.

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Empowering women with the education and skills they need to re-enter the labour market and unlock their full earning potential will be critical to accelerating an equitable recovery.

New insights show a developing opportunity to meet this challenge at scale. Coursera data in the Global Gender Gap Report 2022 points to promising trends in online learning that have the potential to improve gender parity in higher education and workforce development.

Online learning is narrowing gender education gaps and preparing women for in-demand jobs in the digital economy by removing barriers for women learners and improving gender inclusion in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, and connecting women to rising skills and job opportunities. Here's how.

Removing barriers for women learners

The participation of women learning online has increased significantly and is beginning to match men’s participation in many countries, according to global Coursera data in the Global Gender Gap Report 2022. According to Coursera, the number of women learning online increased from 38% in 2019 to 45% in 2021, even as the gender employment gap widened.

Encouragingly, the 2022 report also reveals that gender gaps are “substantially smaller” in online enrolment than in traditional education. This corroborates other recent research, which found that women see online learning as more accessible than in-person education, citing mobility, safety and family obligations as their top deciding factors.

These findings are part of a new report, Women and Online Learning in Emerging Markets, by the IFC (World Bank Group) in partnership with Coursera and the European Commission.

Forty-five percent of women and 60% of women caregivers in developing countries said they would have had to postpone or stop studies if online learning weren’t an option, according to the IFC research.

Nearly half of the learners surveyed were in their country’s bottom 50th percentile of income and financing emerged as a key barrier for women, reinforcing the importance of accessible learning in steering equitable outcomes.

With increasing broadband connectivity, online learning models – with the benefits of technology and lower distribution costs – make it possible to reach women learners who would otherwise be excluded.


Improving gender inclusion in STEM fields

The Global Gender Gap Report 2022 shows that women worldwide have been enrolling in and graduating from tertiary education degrees at increasing rates over the last five years. Yet, higher education continues to be gender segregated.

Women are still losing out, particularly in high-demand fields such as information and communication technologies (ICT) and engineering. The report also finds women underrepresented in STEM fields, which are foundational learning for surging technology and digital jobs.

According to 2022 LinkedIn data, the ‘fastest-growing job categories’ across countries are in technology. In the future, an estimated nine out of 10 jobs will require digital skills.

In a positive trend that could narrow these gaps, data from Coursera in the Global Gender Gap 2022 report finds gender parity increased in online training for ICT in several economies between 2019 and 2021, with countries like Greece and Hungary reporting strong increases in the share of women enrolled in ICT. In the Middle East, online ICT enrolments for women in Saudi Arabia rose from 9.2% to 16.1%.

In spite of this progress, much more needs to be done to reduce the digital gender divide and support a wider transition to online learning, particularly in emerging markets. In India, for example, online ICT enrolments for women reported a slight rise from 23.8% to 24.8%.

However, improving internet access could tremendously widen the impact of online learning, as only 33% of women in India have used the internet, compared to 57% of men.

In addition, the Indian government’s thrust on inclusive digital access and push for online learning can help scale learning interventions that empower women learners in STEM in the years ahead.


There is also an opportunity to rethink solutions that draw more women to a STEM education. The report highlights that across both online and traditional formats, men continue to be overrepresented in “male-dominated” fields, especially in STEM.

Our research shows that increasing the representation of women instructors can support greater participation from women learners in STEM and other high-demand fields. Women are more likely to enrol in courses taught by women instructors, and they rate these courses more highly.

Connecting women to skills and jobs of the future

Last year’s Global Gender Gap Report underscored the importance of “re-deploying and re-employing women in emerging jobs” to shape a gender-equal recovery.

Online learning is enabling new pathways that connect women to these future jobs. The share of entry-level credential enrolments among women learners on Coursera jumped significantly from 25% in 2019 to 40% in 2021.

These certificates are helping women gain skills for diverse, entry-level digital jobs online – from IT support and software development, to UX design and social media marketing – created by top employers like Google, IBM, Meta and Salesforce to fill existing talent gaps.

As work trends evolve, the combined forces of online learning and remote work can help unlock opportunity for women, who now have the means to flexibly develop skills for jobs that can be done from anywhere.

This year’s Global Gender Gap Report also shows women may have an underlying advantage in the kind of skills they prioritize, with ‘gendered learning profiles’ revealing differences in the skills men and women invest in.

Where men choose to upskill in digital and innovation skills, women are more likely to invest in ‘working with people’ and self-management skills such as ‘resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility’ – which are among the top 10 job skills of tomorrow.


How is the World Economic Forum promoting equity in the workplace?

By building human skills online that complement digital skills, women will be well-positioned to take on new roles in the modern workforce, leading digital transformation and change management efforts that businesses globally are prioritizing.

Online learning is levelling the playing field for women by connecting them to fast-growing opportunities and better prospects. Such access can empower more women to reclaim lost ground in the labour market, and gain critical skills that prepare them for the careers of tomorrow.

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